Smoke Across the Fields #10640

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The Story

Surrounded by green mountains and under blue skies, it’s a beautiful summer weekend in rural central Pennsylvania. The East Broad Top Railroad is busily working hauling tourists out of Orbisonia on pleasure runs through the day. The old Baldwin steam locomotive pushes up a tall plume of black smoke that drifts away across a landscape of freshly cut hay fields. This scene was repeated hundreds of times a year through the heyday when this little narrow gauge railroad was making its living hauling coal and gannister trains until the mid-1950s.

The narrow lane leading to the farm on the right goes over the track on an equally narrow bridge covered in thick wooden planks. It’s a place known on the railroad as McMullin’s Summit. It was on that bridge I stood to shoot this oncoming train settled into the scenic Pennsylvania mountain landscape. This was the slow train alright; what’s the hurry when reliving history and having fun? Eventually, it lumbered closer and went clanking and chuffing underneath, letting me stand in thick black coal smoke for a few seconds. Truly, a breathtaking experience in more ways than one.

Note the interesting small detail of two poles with a single drooped line hanging across the track. That’s a very simple old-fashioned telltale, a device to warn trainmen riding the tops of cars when a low overpass was about to run under, so you’d better soon duck!

The Future of the East Broad Top Railroad

This short line railroad was only 36 miles in length but always had plenty to haul for most of its service life as a commercial carrier. Back in the heyday of resource extraction industires in Pennsylvania, it hauled coal, timber, iron ore, pig iron, gannister used in brick making, and all manner of farm products. In passenger service back in the day, another important resource it hauled were the people who worked in and lived around all those industries too.

Presently, this historical railroad hasn’t run at all for several years and is up for sale. It has survived intact as a tourist railroad for decades since it’s last days as a commercial common carrier. Hopefully, a buyer will eventually come forward to resurrect this little narrow gauge railroad once again and extend its life. In the interim and for many years prior, much maintenance effort to keep the old shop buildings and offices standing has been done by the volunteers of the Friends of the East Broad Top. Their website offers a lot of information about this unique railroading gem from the Victorian era.

Another interesting look at this antique steam railroad in action is At The Switch #3604 which shows a close-up of one of the old Baldwin steam locomotives. Stillness In The Roundhouse #14193 shows the EBT’s locomotives at rest in their roundhouse berths in Rockhill Furnace.

UPDATE: Since this article was written, as well as being closed since 2011, the East Broad Top Railroad has been taken over by a non-profit intended to restore this historic narrow gauge railroad. It’s a valuable piece of history, this intact Victorian-era industrial artifact. There was recently the return to running tourist trains at the EBT with one of their original working 100-year-old steam locomotive at the 2023 Winter Spectacular. See my pictures Ready To Run #15273 or Home Stretch #15272 for short articles on this restoration effort

Location: Orbisonia, Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. Picture and story © Andrew Dierks

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